Football Preview: Northwestern seeks redemption in season opener against Nebraska


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski. It remains to be seen whether Hilinski won the starting job.

Charlotte Varnes, Managing Editor

When Northwestern traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska in 2021, things quickly took a turn for the worse. 

Within just six minutes, the score was 14-0 Cornhuskers. By the end of the first half, it was 35-7. The Wildcats didn’t score again after that, falling to Nebraska by 49 points — their worst loss against the Cornhuskers in more than two decades.

Despite the lopsided score, the programs were similar on paper. Both NU and Nebraska finished 3-9 in 2021 and went 1-8 in conference play — last among Big Ten West programs.

Now, it’s Week 0 of the 2022 season and the Cats and Cornhuskers are each looking to make an early statement. But don’t expect a replay of last year. With changes to Nebraska’s offense and a more seasoned NU program, the playing field might be more even. Plus, because the game is in Dublin, neither program has a true home-field advantage. 

New-look Nebraska

Although the Cornhuskers finished 3-9 in 2022, their play was competitive. Nebraska lost to top-ranked Ohio State and Michigan by fewer than 10 points. Still, 3-9 is 3-9 — regardless of how close the games were. 

Coach Scott Frost has gone 15-29 in four seasons at Nebraska — a remarkable downturn after leading UCF to a perfect season in 2017. In November, Nebraska Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Trev Alberts announced changes to Frost’s contract entering 2022 and affirmed his support for the coach. Since then, Frost has parted ways with several assistant coaches and made new hires.

One of the biggest changes comes on offense, with former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple joining the Cornhuskers’ staff. At Pitt, Whipple developed quarterback Kenny Pickett into a star and improved wide receivers’ play as well. He will coach a Nebraska offensive unit that lost its quarterback and its leading receivers. Texas transfer quarterback Casey Thompson will look to quickly fill in the gaps for the Cornhuskers under Whipple’s guidance. 

Cats’ quarterback watch

Who will NU’s quarterback be? That likely won’t be revealed until game time. Instagram comments on junior Ryan Hilinski’s account fueled speculation that he may be the Cats’ starter, but coach Pat Fitzgerald declined to name the starter earlier this week.

Having a reliable signal caller has been key to the Cats’ most dominant seasons in recent memory. In 2021, NU struggled to find a quarterback following Peyton Ramsey’s masterful 2020 season. Andrew Marty, Hunter Johnson and Hilinski all got a shot, with Marty starting the last four games of the season. When Marty and Johnson departed from the program at the end of 2021, they left Hilinski to battle it out with sophomore Brendan Sullivan for the starting job.

What kind of game Hilinski or Sullivan play Saturday isn’t necessarily indicative of the Cats’ success this season. But there will need to be a steep learning curve if NU hopes to get its offense clicking again in 2022. 

Growth on NU’s defense

Former Cats’ star safety Brandon Joseph turned heads from the moment he took the field in 2020. But his 2021 season was a quieter affair amid a collapse of NU’s defense.

Now, Joseph heads to a top-five program at Notre Dame and the Cats’ secondary looks to pick up the pieces. Inexperienced in 2021, the “Sky Team” returns a wealth of experience, including 2021 starters junior Cameron Mitchell, senior Coco Azema and senior A.J. Hampton Jr. 

Things certainly weren’t seamless in defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s first season in 2021. Whether NU’s defense improves in 2022 will indicate if its failures were the one-off result of a transition year or the start of a downward trend. 

With a new-look Nebraska offense, perhaps the Cats’ defense will hold strong and get a shot at redemption Saturday. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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